Best Director is historically an exciting and often surprising category as this Academy branch has often reached outside of the Best Picture lineup (whether it’s a year of five and even in the expanded years) for a unique voice. Think David Lynch (twice, for 1986’s Blue Velvet and again for 2001’s Mulholland Dr), Paul Greengrass (for 2006’s United 93), Bennett Miller (for 2014’s Foxcatcher) and most recently Paweł Pawlikowski for the 2018 Polish film Cold War.
I think this year might bring us another: Kornél Mundruczó for Pieces of a Woman. The highly respected Hungarian director and Cannes staple ventures into his first English language film and in doing so gives birth to two likely acting nominees in Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn. The film, about a woman’s journey after the sudden death of her newborn child, isn’t simply a directorial achievement, it was rooted in very personal experience of Mundruczó and writer/partner Kata Wéber. Mundruczó will need a clear path to get this nomination though; he won’t need DGA but I think BAFTA is a must. For the examples of Miller and Pawlikowski above, they also came in as Best Director winners at Cannes but this year’s pandemic sidelined the festival. Adding that Cannes and Netflix are still at an impasse, an appearance there in a ‘normal’ year wouldn’t have happened anyway. That said, in a different world, where there was no pandemic and no infighting between the festival and the streamer, I think Pieces of a Woman would have been an easy in competition choice and Mundruczó a possible winner there, setting him on his path. Am I reaching at a lot of straws to justify my prediction? Maybe (probably) but I think there’s a chance.
You’ll notice that unlike previous months, I’ve finally ranked my top 10 choices in Best Director now that many official pundit predictions are underway and we’re just about to head into the first critics’ prizes in December. The race will start taking shape and in that race I see history being made by Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) as the first Chinese-American woman to be nominated. I see her as the frontrunner right now with two-time Best Director nominee David Fincher (Mank) right behind her.
From there, Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) has an outstanding shot at becoming only the second openly gay Black Best Director nominee and Regina King (One Night in Miami…) can become the first Black female Best Director nominee. But, that’s a lot of ‘firsts’ and even with a group like the directing branch liking to go outside the box, the safety of more familiar names like Aaron Sorkin, Spike Lee, Paul Greengrass or George Clooney could turn this category into a less exciting one that it could be.
Here are my ranked 2021 Oscar predictions in Best Director for November.
Green – moves up; Red – moves down; Blue – new entry this month
1. Chloé Zhao – Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)
2. David Fincher – Mank (Netflix)
3. George C. Wolfe – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
4. Aaron Sorkin – The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
5. Kornél Mundruczó – Pieces of a Woman (Netflix)
6. Lee Isaac Chung – Minari (A24)
7. Regina King – One Night in Miami… (Amazon Studios)
8. Spike Lee – Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)
9. Paul Greengrass – News of the World (Universal Pictures)
10. Florian Zeller – The Father (Sony Classics Pictures)
Other Contenders: Francis Lee – Ammonite (Neon), Ron Howard – Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix), Shaka King – Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros), George Clooney – The Midnight Sky (Netflix), Eliza Hittman – Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Focus Features) Sofia Coppola – On the Rocks (Apple/A24), Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman (Focus Features), Christopher Nolan – Tenet (Warner Bros), Lee Daniels – The United States vs Billie Holiday (Paramount Pictures)